Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Enfield Poltergeist: General Skepticism (Part 1)

(You can read the first part of this series here.)

On a May 28, 1999 BBC radio program, Richard Wiseman remarked that most criticism of the Enfield case boils down to saying that the girls in the home where the poltergeist activity occurred, Janet and Margaret Hodgson, were playing tricks. (Start listening around 11:30 in the audio here.) In the time since Wiseman made those comments, Enfield skepticism hasn't changed much. For some recent examples of skeptics attributing the phenomena to cheating by the Hodgson girls, see here, here, and here.

There were five people in the Hodgson family, a mother, Peggy, and her four children: Margaret (age 13), Janet (age 11), Johnny (age 10), and Billy (age 7). Why do skeptics focus on the two girls?

Billy was too young, doesn't seem to have been the sort of person who would do all that the skeptics are alleging, and wasn't caught faking much. Johnny was a few years older, but he was often away at boarding school when the events occurred, the tricks he was involved with were too low in quantity and quality to be significant, and he died of cancer in 1981 without ever renouncing the family's claims about what they experienced. Peggy, the mother, died in 2003, and she never retracted her claims about the poltergeist. (You can watch a video of Maurice Grosse interviewing Peggy and Margaret Hodgson several years before Peggy's death here.) In one of the documentaries I linked in my first post, the SPR's Mary Rose Barrington refers to how impressed she was by Peggy (see here until 1:04:50). Guy Playfair writes:

A social worker gave her opinion of [Peggy], whom she knew well. 'She strikes me as a four-square, foot-on-the-ground type of woman, not prone to hysteria,' she said. 'It's a close-knit family, and she keeps the place clean and does as well as she can with slender resources.' The [Hodgsons] clearly had a good reputation in their community, and were liked by all who knew them….

Here I should emphasize, at the risk of repetition, that of all the many people who met [Peggy] throughout the case, including a number of highly sceptical journalists (and indeed researchers), not one ever suggested that she struck them as other than thoroughly honest, with a habit of describing things exactly as she saw them. (THIH, 52-3, 221)

It doesn't seem that skeptics would be able to make much of a case for faking on the part of Peggy, Johnny, and Billy. The situation is somewhat different with Janet and Margaret.

They were older than their siblings, so they had more potential to cheat effectively. The alleged paranormal phenomena occurred around them more than the phenomena occurred around the other members of the family. Janet was often smiling or laughing in photographs and videos, which makes it easier to think of her playing tricks than it is to think of other members of the family doing so. And, most significantly, Janet and Margaret were sometimes caught playing tricks, and they admitted to doing it at times.

But Will Storr outlines some of the problems with attributing the poltergeist phenomena to anybody in the family:

Guy Playfair's book about the case is at first fascinating, then terrifying and, ultimately, a wholly depressing read. It's the sheer exhaustion of the family that gets you. The relentless dread. The flying out of bed ten times a night. The sleeplessness. The tears. The constant intrusion. The months the entire family spent so scared that they'd sleep together in the same room with the light on….

I still think it's unreasonable to believe the whole eighteen-month episode was a hoax. I'm convinced that an eleven-year-old couldn't fool a mother of four, her neighbours and all those journalists and miscellaneous strangers that a ghost was causing chaos, when it was actually her. Nobody could. If you, as a child, threw a Lego brick at a house-guest's head and blamed it on a poltergeist, there wouldn't be a mother on earth that would fall for it. Not even once. And besides, why would she want to make it up? The haunting was an exhausting and miserable trial for the whole family and it led to Mrs Hodgson having a nervous breakdown, to her [Janet's] brother [Billy] suffering years of bullying and to Janet herself moving away from the area. She'd have to have been crazy to willingly inflict that on everyone - and we know she wasn't crazy, the team at the Maudsley [where Janet's mental health was examined in 1978 by a group of experts under the leadership of Peter Fenwick] confirmed that much….

So really, if we're going to conclude that Janet - possibly with the help of [Margaret] - was responsible for an almighty hoax, as well as being extremely well educated (they weren't), they'd have to have been expert magicians, ventriloquists and liars. (WSVS, 131, 220-1)

In one of the documentaries I linked earlier, Barrington commented on how she didn't know what to make of the girls' credibility when she interviewed them a few decades ago, but she went on to note that their behavior later in life supports their credibility (see here until 1:05:35). If they wanted attention or money, why did they spend the later years of their adolescence and their early adulthood in such obscurity? Why did Janet not even begin talking publicly about the case again, after her adolescence, until she was about forty? And why have Janet and Margaret refrained from making the sort of claims that would get them more attention and money today? If they were so exceptional at acting, magic, ventriloquism, and the other skills they would have needed to have faked the case as a whole, why don't we see those skills reflected in their later lives?

People who have interacted with Janet about the Enfield case in recent years have commented on how credible she seems to be. See Storr's comments on pages 196 and 221 of his book, Jane Goldman's comments here (until 4:38), and, most significantly, Deborah Hyde's comments on page 31 of the Summer 2012 issue of The Skeptic (vol. 23, no. 4). Though Hyde is highly critical of the Enfield case, she wrote positively of Janet after appearing with her on a television program in 2012. She referred to how Janet was:

extremely likeable and every bit as nervous as I had been warned. She has previously been quite publicity-averse…

In her piece [below], Ms. Barrington makes the point that "Janet has consistently resisted the fame and fortune that would certainly come her way if she were now to claim that she had faked all her phenomena." While true, that carries the implicit assumption that fame and fortune are the objects of Janet's desire. Having been a witness to her demeanour at a TV studio, I'd be very surprised if that was the case….

I find it hard to believe she is self-consciously telling lies

It's common for critics to suggest that alleged paranormal phenomena only occurred when Janet and Margaret were around. One skeptic writes, "Investigators in the real case [as distinct from a movie based on it] noted that unusual things only happened when the girls were around". Even Graham Morris, who ought to know better and may have just chosen his words poorly, commented that Janet was "the common denominator of everything that happened".

Actually, many paranormal events occurred when neither Janet nor Margaret was in the house (or some other location where phenomena occurred). Even when they were nearby, they were often too far away and/or incapable in some other way of producing the phenomena by normal means. See, for example, the following pages in Playfair's book: 47-8, 63-5, 74, 156-7, 231-2, 237, 246. At a meeting of the SPR in March of 1978, Grosse and Playfair "spelled out no less than twenty-six incidents for which no kind of fraud hypothesis could account" (214). There are far more than 26 incidents for which fraud would be a poor explanation. The examples Grosse and Playfair provided at the SPR meeting were far from exhaustive.

Even when it was within Janet and Margaret's ability to do something by normal means, it's often doubtful that they would have had the motive to do it. For example, a heavy, sharp-cornered iron grill from a fireplace was thrown across a room and barely missed hitting Billy's head (THIH, 58). Billy was only 7 years old, was an object of sympathy because of a speech impediment he had, and was "adored" by the whole family (ibid.). It's unlikely that one of the girls, or both, would have thrown the grill anywhere near Billy's head. Three pets of the family, two goldfish and a bird, died in circumstances likely related to the poltergeist (ibid., 167-8). Again, it seems unlikely that the girls would have killed their pets when so many other options for faking poltergeist activity would have been available.

When the girls potentially had a motive to fake something, they often lacked the ability. I'll cite a good example related to the fireplace, which I just mentioned above. First, let me quote what Rational Wiki says about the incident in its remarkably inaccurate article on the Enfield case:

When she [Janet] and her sister moved a small metal gas heater away from the wall in their bedroom then called investigators in to show them "what the poltergeist had done", the men excitedly reported "a heavy fireplace ripped from the wall by unseen forces."

No source is cited. I doubt that the author of the article has read Playfair's book. Here's what Playfair, who was in the house when the incident happened, wrote about it:

There was a sudden violent shaking sound, and it was immediately followed by total panic.

'Oh Lord!' cried [Peggy Hodgson]. 'That does it. All that power! I'm getting out.'…

The entire iron frame of the gas fire had been wrenched out of the wall, and was standing at an angle on the floor, still attached to the half-inch diameter brass pipe that connected it to the mains. The pipe had been bent through an angle of 32 degrees. This was a major demolition job, for the thing was cemented into the brickwork, and it was out of the question to suggest that one of the children could have wrenched it out. When we finally dismantled the whole apparatus, we found it quite a job even to move. It must have weighed at least fifty pounds. (60)

How would one of the girls, or even both, have wrenched a fifty-pound fireplace out of its cement framework, bent the brass pipe to a 32-degree angle, forcefully enough to make the "sudden violent shaking sound" Playfair heard, and have done all of that without Peggy (who was in the room with them) noticing that they did it?

A paranormal researcher who's a more reasonable skeptic than the Rational Wiki author admits that "there were reports of activity that I’m not willing to dismiss a priori as childish trickery, such as a wrought iron fireplace being wrenched out of a wall". Mary Rose Barrington, in the SPR's committee report on the Enfield case, referred to the fireplace incident as "an item of poltergeistery of the first order" (cited here).

The Rational Wiki article cited above refers to how the witnesses involved in the Enfield case were "gullible", "credulous", etc., how the investigators supposedly uncritically accepted whatever the children told them, and so on. But Rational Wiki doesn't explain why we're supposed to think that all of the police officers, reporters, researchers, and other individuals involved were so undiscerning. I've already provided examples of people who witnessed the Enfield phenomena who were initially skeptical, made attempts to find normal explanations for what happened, and so forth (Carolyn Heeps, Graham Morris, etc.). Playfair's book gives many examples of his and other researchers' skepticism, their "regular policy" (70) of trying to duplicate apparently paranormal phenomena by normal means, their efforts to catch the family in fraud, the skepticism of other witnesses, and so on (e.g., 3, 32-3, 43, 45-6, 47, 57, 77, 120-1, 130, 159, 226, 232-3).

To get some idea of how implausible views like those of Rational Wiki are, think of the events of the opening days of the poltergeist (ibid., 1-5). Two of the children, Janet and Johnny, were spending the night in one of the bedrooms. They told their mother that their beds were shaking. She didn't think much of it at the time. (If only the Hodgson girls were involved in fraud, then I guess we're supposed to believe that Janet was making Johnny's bed shake without his realizing that his sister was doing it.) The next night, the same two children heard an unusual shuffling noise in their room and told their mother about it. She looked for a normal explanation for the noise, and figured that it might have been a chair rattling, so she took the chair out of the room. (Looking for a normal explanation for what was happening was a regular practice of both the family and other witnesses.) Then some knocking noises began to be heard coming from the walls. Then, a heavy chest of drawers moved on its own. Instead of concluding that something supernatural was occurring, Peggy went over to the chest and pushed it back against the wall. At this point, we should ask how any of the children could have made the knocking noises on the wall and have fit between the chest and the wall and have done so without Peggy's noticing any of it. That's an extremely unlikely scenario. The chest moved out from the wall again. Peggy pushed on it again, but it wouldn't move back this time. Again, we ought to ask how likely it is that a woman in her forties would be unable to exert more strength than an 11-year-old and/or 10-year-old, if one or both of those children were preventing her from pushing the chest back. And how likely is it that Peggy would continue to not realize that her children were the ones pushing on the chest? Once she realized that the chest wouldn't move, she became frightened and decided that she and the children should leave the house. She got her neighbor, Vic Nottingham, a large man who worked as a builder specializing in roofing, and Vic came over with his twenty-year-old son, Garry. They heard knocking on the walls, apparently following them wherever they went in the house. As a middle-aged man and a builder, Vic would have known what kinds of noises floor boards, pipes, and other objects in a house normally make. He looked inside and outside the house and couldn't think of any explanation for the knocking or the other phenomena. The police were called, and the two police officers who went there also experienced multiple phenomena and looked for and couldn't find a normal explanation for what they witnessed. One of the officers, who heard the knocking and saw a chair move, would later sign a sworn affidavit about her experience. If you watch the BBC video from 1977 that I linked at the beginning of the first post in this series, you can see how shaken Vic is, and he refers to how frightened the police officers were on the night in question. He also refers to how it's affected his performance at work and how he's been ridiculed by a co-worker over the situation. What's the chance that Peggy, Vic, two police officers, etc. would have been so taken in by some tricks played by a couple of 11- and 13-year-old girls who were as bad at playing those tricks as Rational Wiki suggests? I'm just discussing the opening days of the poltergeist, and we're already seeing major problems for the sort of fraud hypothesis that Rational Wiki and other skeptics have proposed.

Then there are the occurrences that took place after Janet and Margaret moved out of the house. Paranormal phenomena continued to occur there up to the time of Peggy's death in 2003. And the Bennetts, who moved in afterward, also had such experiences. How would Janet and Margaret have been responsible for events that continued for many years after they'd moved away?

Still, isn't it significant that the girls were sometimes caught faking things? As one skeptic puts it:

In fact several of the investigators caught the girls faking "poltergeist" activity (much more so than is even depicted in the film [The Conjuring 2]), and the girls admitted as much but insisted that they hadn't faked all of it--raising the obvious question of why someone would fake any of it, if genuine ghost activity is going on all around you. You don't need to pretend to find an apple in a full orchard.

Poltergeists aren't comparable to an orchard that bears such predictable types of fruit at such predictable times. Even if they were like that, there would still be reasons to cheat under some circumstances. Similarly, a student who's capable of doing well on a test may cheat anyway, since he doesn't want to take the risk of not doing well, since he decided to spend time with his friends rather than studying as he should have, or for some other reason. An athlete who has a particular athletic talent may cheat in some manner anyway, for a variety of reasons. These things happen frequently. When such cheating occurs, we don't conclude that the student must have been incapable of doing well on the test or that the athlete must not have had any athletic talent. We don't conclude that the student must have cheated on every test in his life or that the athlete must have cheated in every sports context he was ever involved in. It would be even more irrational to conclude that no student in the school could have done well on the test, since one student cheated, or to conclude that every athlete on the team must have been cheating, since one cheated. Given that many of the Enfield phenomena occurred in contexts in which cheating by Janet and/or Margaret would be unlikely, even on occasions when neither of them was around and neither could plausibly have arranged for the phenomena to occur, how would citing their cheating on other occasions explain what happened?

In an interview with Will Storr, Janet estimated that two percent of the phenomena were faked (WSVS, 195). She comments that "there was times when things would happen and times when they wouldn't and sometimes, if things didn't happen, you'd feel that somehow you'd failed…Plus you'd get bored and you'd get frustrated at all the people coming and going." (194) Children often play tricks. It's something they do when they're bored, as Janet put it, or for other reasons. And children often imitate what they see. It would be unusual to have a house with four children who are the ages of the Hodgson children and have them go for more than a year (the amount of time when the poltergeist activity was at its height) without any of them ever playing any tricks or ever imitating what they saw the poltergeist do. Playfair notes that "children involved in poltergeist cases often tended to imitate the phenomena" (THIH, 158).

Every trick the girls played that I'm aware of was of low quality. On one occasion, they hid Playfair's tape recorder and said that the poltergeist had taken it. He'd left the recorder running, though, so it had recorded them playing the trick. Should we even call that cheating? It would be more accurate to call it a joke, and it was a joke that wasn't even carried out well. On another occasion, Janet bent or tried to bend some metal objects with her hands, objects that were supposed to be bent paranormally. She did it in front of a video camera, even though she could have concealed the bending if she were being careful about not getting caught. Apparently, she didn't even care enough about getting caught, or didn't think things through enough, to avoid having her cheating discovered. And so on. (Later in this series, I'll have more to say about this video of metal bending in particular and the trickery issue more broadly.) It's quite a leap to go from, on the one hand, hiding a tape recorder or trying to bend metal objects to, on the other hand, making apparitions appear to people in a house when you're not there or tearing a fireplace out of a wall it's cemented into. Given the low quality of the girls' tricks, that only a small percentage of the events in question can be shown to be tricks, and that the large majority of the phenomena are unlikely to have been trickery, the fact that the girls sometimes played tricks doesn't carry a lot of weight. It diminishes the evidence for the Enfield case to some degree, but not much. It demonstrates a willingness and ability to fake some things, but not a willingness, much less the ability, to fake everything. You can't build the vast superstructure of a fraud hypothesis, which is intended to explain the whole Enfield case or a large percentage of it, on such a meager foundation.

(Later posts in this series will be linked here when they become available: part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8.)


  1. "The entire iron frame of the gas fire had been wrenched out of the wall, and was standing at an angle on the floor, still attached to the half-inch diameter brass pipe that connected it to the mains. The pipe had been bent through an angle of 32 degrees. This was a major demolition job, for the thing was cemented into the brickwork, and it was out of the question to suggest that one of the children could have wrenched it out. When we finally dismantled the whole apparatus, we found it quite a job even to move. It must have weighed at least fifty pounds."

    I suppose one could argue that it was removed in advance and someone pushed it out. But it would have been to heave to push.

    1. Steve,

      The scenario you're suggesting wouldn't explain the "sudden violent shaking sound" at the time of the event, and it wouldn't explain how the girls would have removed the fireplace from the wall without their mother, who was in the room at the time, noticing it. Watch the video segment here until 18:27. Judging by what Peggy Hodgson says there, it seems that she saw the fireplace move. If she saw it move, and it was being moved by one or both of the girls, how did she miss that? And if the girls had loosened the fireplace earlier, how did they do it without anybody noticing, especially with so many other people around so much of the time? I don't recall any point when Playfair or anybody else refers to the girls being left in the house alone. If it did occur, it apparently didn't happen often. If they had been working at loosening the fireplace, we'd also have to ask how nobody noticed that the wall in that area had been broken up. Because of the nature of what was going on in the house, a lot of attention was given, by researchers and others, to the layout of the house, where objects were placed at a given time, etc. It would be an unexpected oversight if nobody other than the girls would have noticed that the fireplace had been dislodged from the wall. The fireplace was next to the girls' beds, in an area where a lot of the paranormal phenomena occurred. That makes it even more unlikely that nobody other than the girls would have noticed what was going on.

  2. Jason, I only learned of this two days ago (thanks to you). Yes it all seems unlikely to me to not be a "supernatural" event.

  3. The first two sentences of the third paragraph in my original post were inaccurate, so I've replaced them. Here's the original version, followed by the replacement:

    "Billy was too young, doesn't seem to have been the sort of person who would do what skeptics are alleging, and was never caught faking anything, as far as I know. Johnny was a few years older, but he also doesn't seem like somebody who would have done the faking in question, he was often away at boarding school when the events occurred, I don't think he was ever caught playing any tricks, and he died of cancer in 1981 without ever renouncing the family's claims about what they experienced."

    "Billy was too young, doesn't seem to have been the sort of person who would do all that the skeptics are alleging, and wasn't caught faking much. Johnny was a few years older, but he was often away at boarding school when the events occurred, the tricks he was involved with were too low in quantity and quality to be significant, and he died of cancer in 1981 without ever renouncing the family's claims about what they experienced."

  4. Here's a post that discusses the tape of the fireplace incident and other evidence for the authenticity of the event.

  5. I've changed "in her forties" in the following sentence to "about forty":

    "Why did Janet not even begin talking publicly about the case again, after her adolescence, until she was in her forties?"

  6. For more about Peggy Hodgson and her credibility as a witness, see here.